HOW TO WATCH A MOVIE & WRITE A SCREENPLAY
(Nearly all major films follow a plot invented some 2,500 years ago)
Hollywood is awash in movies no one will ever see. For every one of the 400 to 500 feature films that will actually get produced this year by the American film industry, there are thousands of finished scripts in the hands of producers, director, actors, and agents waiting for a green light.
The Writer’s Guild of America formally registers more than 50,000 newly finished screenplays every year and there are thousands of scripts stacked in studio offices and at weekend poolsides, actively in play to one extent or another. Back in 2011, major studios got about 5,000 submissions. They produce 15 to 20 films per year. That is .4%, less than 1%. Not good odds. However, it sure beats the lottery.
Hollywood spends billions of dollars a year on story development, three-quarters of it on scripts that will never get produced. So with this kind of money flowing and such a vast wealth of scripts available, why aren’t the movies always great? Why is it that we end up Ishtar, Last Action Hero, Waterworld, and Rocky and Bullwinkle?
With so much creative product available, how do they pick and choose? With all those stories from which to select, how come so many of the movies that arrive at our local cineplexes seem so much the same? Can’t they find something different for us to see?
The answer to that question is yes, they certainly can. And the answer to the one before it is even simpler: They don’t want something different. It isn’t that many of the movies we see are similar—it’s that they all are. Every major movie produced these days (including the great ones) tells its story in the same way, following a rigid structure that becomes obvious only when you change your focus and look past the surface complexity to take in the large whole. In an (only slightly) abbreviated form, here is the standard outline.
The lights dim, titles roll and within the first 10 minutes of the film we will meet the main character. The main character will immediately show a bit of human weakness that makes us like him or her. We will spend a few minutes getting to know the hero’s situation before it is radically changed by something unexpected; this will usually happen between 20 to 30 minutes into the movie. As a result of this inciting moment, the hero will now be forced to embark on a quest for something (or someone) that will last for one hour. Facing progressively more serious complications until at very close to 90 minutes into movie, the hero will hit rock bottom, unable to continue without risking absolutely everything in one final gamble to gain his/her objective. Within the next ten minutes he will lock into combat with the force that has been blocking him/her, winning at last, victorious and changed forever and for the better, even if he/she sacrifices his/her life to gain his/her goal.
Fade out. Roll credits
That’s the format, and every professional in Hollywood knows it intimately in its current detail. It works for action flicks, love stories, comedies, westerns, period pieces, science-fiction, Oscar-contenders, and straight-to-video flops. Every movie made is written, produced, and directed by people whose every creative choice is guided by it, either in order to follow the format carefully or to deviate from it—even more carefully. For as time-tested entertainment principles go, this one, the three-act play (set-up, confrontation, and resolution), is the granddaddy. Aristotle analyzed its structure approximately 2,400 years ago and no one has substantially improved on it since.
Writing and producing plays in ancient Greece was, according to the fragmented accounts that still exist, every bit as politically contentious and publicly competitive, as is moviemaking today. Prizes were awarded; fame and fortune gained and lost; the viewing public both courted and reviled by the producers. The Cannes Film Festival of its day was the Great Dionysia, an annual gathering to honor the god of fertility, wine, and vegetation during which the greatest poets of the time each submitted four plays: three tragedies and a comedy. Aeschyulus won in 458 B.C. with his great masterpiece Oresteia in which he tied his three tragedies together into a sequential and unified whole. The three-act play was born and it hasn’t change since. The world is still waiting for a better drama than Oresteia, on stage or screen.
About a hundred years after Oresteia, Aristotle wrote his Poetics in which he defined almost all of the elements of modern drama; tragedy, comedy, character, plot, reversal, discovery, and catharsis; beginning, middle, and end; and the concept of “unity of action,” which means that if a part of a play makes no difference to the play’s outcome, it should not be there. Substitute “movie” for “play” and it’s not hard to envision a bearded and be-robed guy in a private screening room in front of a gathering of Versace and Armani suits, lecturing the moguls on story structure and speaking to them in Greek. What, you think this doesn’t actually happen?!
The problem with Poetics is that it disappeared for a few hundred years, lost or suppressed through the Middle Ages, and when it was rediscovered in the sixteenth-century Italy, nobody involved in theater had even read it. Viewing it as revealed truth, an academic named Lodovico Castelvetro set himself up as a sort of reborn Socrates. Gathering the best humanists of Italy around him, he taught them his narrowly read version of the story structure of Aristotle in which, among other inviolable attributes, the action of every play had to match real time minute-for-minute. Aristotle’s “unity of action” had become Castelvertro’s “The Unities,” a rigid story structure in which action, time, and place had to occur on stage as if they were occurring in real time and place; anything else was not classical, and therefore not art. Aristotle had only suggested that the best duration for a tragedy was one full revolution of the sun, but Castelvertro, having a low opinion of the audiences of his day, was convinced that they could not understand a play if its scenes took place in differing locales and if the time that passed from curtain to curtain was different from the actual time the audience spent in their seats watching it. His heavily promoted misreading of Aristotle became the universal theatrical doctrine of the time, spreading to France where it took an even firmer hold. There, in the most celebrated controversy of the time—and a cautionary tale for our own—Pierre Corneille wrote a play called Le Cid, basing his story on the eleventh-century Spanish hero whose given name was Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar. In Corneille’s play, the hero Rodrique loves Chimene and she loves him, but he is forced into a duel in which he kills Chimene’s father. He then becomes a national hero by repulsing an invasion of the Moors and the king orders Chimene to marry him after a year of mourning for her father. She does, and all ends well. But in writing his story, Corneille had to stick rigidly to the Unities if he wanted his script or play actually produced, so he compressed several years of history into a 36-hour time frame. That got him the green light, but the audience was outraged: You mean Chimene marries this guy less than 24 hours after he kills her father? And it’s okay because she loves him? Are you kidding? Get me a rewrite. The Academie Francaise agreed, declaring the play both morally and artistically defective, a pronouncement that (does this sound familiar?) failed to prevent Corneille from going on to become the day’s pre-eminent dramatist in his country.
The Unities gradually gave way to less rigid dramatic structures as audiences became more sophisticated and set design got better, allowing for easily recognized changes of scene. The big technological breakthrough was picture-framed perspective staging using painted backdrops to simulate in 3-D any locale the play needed. This was a quantum leap every bit as impressive then as computer-generated special effects are today, and its result was to bring wider audiences to the theater. Wider audiences meant more varied tastes and fewer classically trained viewers buying tickets. By the nineteenth century, drama had passed through any number of styles and theories, up to and especially including the Theater of the Absurd, so that today, in the live theater, absolutely anything can, as art absolutely should go. You want a bunch of guys in blue paint making weird effects, you got it: Blue Man Group. A Disney cartoon cloned in a simultaneous worldwide musical epic: The Lion King, Hamlet, almost anywhere. And even Aeschylus: Oresteia still finds a stage somewhere.
Live theater has escaped the shackles of required artistic conformity for the simple reason that each production doesn’t need a very large audience to be successful: An off-Broadway show can be happy with 50 paid seats a night. Today’s movies are different, and therein lies the problem. Late twentieth-century movies aren’t art, they’re commerce. Each studio release is an individual startup business, an entrepreneurial, multi-multimillion dollar new venture complete with office space, hundreds of employees, product design, marketing, manufacturing, brand identification, cross-licensing arrangements, and a management team with incentive employment agreements that stand to make them millions, even billions worldwide, if they succeed. Or a lot of unemployed time to think about it if they fail. Who says these people should take artistic risks? If you were responsible for 100 to 200 million or more of invested capital, how far from the 2,500 year-old, endlessly successful paradigm would you shift?
Welcome to Robert McKee’s screenplay seminar, or Syd Field’s, or Michael Hauge’s, or Linda Seger, or maybe you should start with a book. They’ve each got one available, along with several dozen written by others, all of which, like the movies, they try to show you how to write, tell the same story in varying degree and detail. Basically, they’re all telling you the same thing only with a varied approach. One thing you can count on, is that they all follow and eventually arrive at the same paradigm. If they don’t, then they don’t know what they’re writing about.
If you want to write a screenplay, or you’re looking for a job anywhere near the creative side of the movie business, you have to read at least one of the books, or go to one or more seminars, or both, because anything worth doing in Hollywood requires over-doing. You have to do this because everyone you’ll be dealing with has already been there, read and done that. And believe in it. They believe in it because it works. Which brings us to the bottom line, to the purpose of every movie: It’s to make money! It is a business enterprise, not an attempt at art. Hollywood understands that the most dependable way to do business is not necessarily to engage your intellect, but to safely and pleasurable exercise your emotions. The ancient Greeks learned two and a half centuries ago that the emotions to exercise for best dramatic effect were pity, fear, and the cathartic joy that comes from their release. Then, they gradually learned how to do this through public performance of a certain type of story that seemed to have universal appeal. That story is the quest in its purest dramatic form, Aristotle and his followers concluded, was the three-act play: Engage your pity, arouse your fear, then release them both. One, two, three—you’re emotionally satisfied.
Hollywood producers have learned to agree. In order to attract the numbers of viewers each movie requires just to break even, they don’t need a unique story that might appeal to a few thousand, they need a dependable archetype that will move millions, even billions. They need the three-act story structure in the same way that basic housing needs four walls and a roof. You can experiment with the details just as long as the purpose remains well served. The customers have to be warm and dry in the house you build for them, and they have to get an emotional lift from your movie, that is what they came into the theater expecting.
Both require, structure, and nothing modern has improved upon the soundness of an ancient design.
For Hollywood, it’s a design that isn’t going to change anytime soon. Keanu Reeves will still appear in the first ten minutes. When we meet Bruce Willis, he’ll be so down and out he’ll be living in his car, the butt of children’s taunts. About a half-hour into the picture, Jack Nicholson will be forced to watch his gay neighbor’s dog. For the next hour, Helen Hunt will face progressively bigger and nastier tornadoes. Patrick Swayze will race against mounting obstacles to make ghostly contact with Demi Moore. And finally, when we’ve been lured all the way to the edge of our seats, at about an hour and a half into the story, Harrison Ford will come face-to-face with Tommy Lee Jones, just before Mel Gibson has his head chopped off, full liberated, FREE at last.
And that is Hollywood’s story. Can you think of a better one? If so, then write it down and send it to me. Otherwise, keep writing and just sit back and enjoy all the movies. All one of them!